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I hear a lot about the importance of "social learning" - the recognition that students' collaboration on projects is something to praise, not a form of cheating to punish. But I hear little about "social teaching," and the idea that that collaborative process of knowledge sharing and building involves both learning and teaching.

Social teaching is part of the idea behind Sophia, a new online platform that offers free academic content to everyone. Describing itself as "a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube," Sophia lets users to create and share short lessons on specific academic topics.

These "learning packets" can be created and uploaded to the site by anyone, using text, images, presentations, video, audio, and more. The quality of the learning packet's content is evaluated by users within the Sophia community as well as by academic experts.

That propensity to share our creativity and our lessons may be evident in the rise of YouTube's popularity, for example, as user-generated content has exploded there and challenged what once were our notions of who got to be a filmmaker. Similarly, says Smithmier, uses a variety of Web 2.0 tools to let "everyone step into the role of teacher."

"Everyone" in this case can instructors, but it can also be the students themselves -- or anyone, really, who wants put together learning packets to help explain content and in doing so, reinforce their own understanding of the subject matter. The content made available via Sophia can provide a good opportunity to "flip the classroom" - that is, by assigning the learning packets as homework lessons, class time can be spent on Q&A and remediation.

"We're at a point in history where it's actually possible for anyone to teach anyone else, regardless of geography or status," says Don Smithmier, Sophia's founder and CEO. "Each of us has the potential to be contributors, to share our knowledge to make education better and more effective."

Learners can get homework help and join study groups, and teachers are able to create private, invitation-only groups on the site. Sophia is free to the general public, although a licensed version will be made available for schools and colleges for their own use.

Before founding Sophia, Smithmier was a long-time executive at Capella Education Company, and the company made a strategic investment in Sophia earlier this year.

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Audrey Watters


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